The struggles of living with an Anxiety disorder.
And how I deal with it... So far
If you are hoping I could cure you of your anxiety, then I have to deeply disappoint you. Unfortunately, I don't have the answers on overcoming anxiety. In truth, I am still dealing with it on a daily basis, even as we speak. All I can do is share what I know, what I’ve learned through experience and tell you how I view anxiety. It may not be a cure-all. But it might help you out a little. But just to be more clear, this is NOT a “How to get rid of anxiety, step 1” article.
Why put myself in that anxiety-ridden spotlight? Well, ironically I’m very comfortable with who I am as a person and I believe in complete transparency. There’s no point in pretending to be someone I’m not. Instead, I am always honest about who I am and who I want to become. So far it has helped me filter out toxic people from my life and have the right people come in. But you are now probably wondering “Huh? But if you are so comfortable in your own skin, why do you have anxiety? You can’t have anxiety.” Unfortunately, you can and I do. So, without further introductions; This is an honest view on my struggles of living with an anxiety disorder…. And how I deal with it so far.
“In short, I am unnaturally terrified of dying. In summary, I am terrified of my own body (slowly) killing me, due to either illness, starvation or otherwise. You name it.”
Anxiety has been part of my entire life. However, when I was young I wasn’t very much aware of my anxiety and therefore never needed to confront it. I also didn’t understand where it resonated from. All I knew was; I am afraid, and I don’t want to be. Not much has changed regarding this mindset. I’m stubborn that way, as you soon will learn. But I’ve become much more aware of my anxiety as it eventually escalated into a disorder in 2016.
My mother had died due to cancer and the stress and sorrow that followed completely broke me. It triggered my anxiety to a new level. I took a sabbatical from school and worked at a part-time job while also working on some smaller projects. In truth, I was overworking myself in order to run away from my problems. I thought work was the best medicine and I should just plow through it. That stubborn attitude made it worse of course. It finally caught up to me a half year later.
First, I would start feeling ill. My heart would start pounding, as if I was having a heart attack. I would have trouble breathing, making me hyperventilate and my body would shake uncontrollably. All these things were of course; a major panic attack. I honestly thought I was dying. At that point, fear kicks in making it even worse.
I wasn’t thinking clearly anymore. I looked up self help books, watched clips on Youtube and followed every tip in the book. Trying to fix myself. "I should be able to figure out what’s wrong with me and fix it", I thought. "I got myself in this mess, I can get myself out of it and figure out what's wrong." But I didn’t.
Nothing I did seemed to work, nor help. Then I started to do something really stupid. I started to avoid the things that associated itself with all those panic attacks. Eventually I stopped going to work. Stopped going to friends. Stopped going to my family. And eventually, even stepping outside my house would make my body shake uncontrollably. When my partner couldn’t even get me out of bed, it was only at that point I myself finally understood; "I have a serious problem and it needs to get fixed by someone other than myself. I can’t do this alone! I need help." If it wasn’t for my partner dragging me out of bed, I don’t think I would have come to that conclusion on my own.
I got help and went into therapy. There I discovered how much of a spiraling pit of anxiety can leave you feeling trapped inside your own mind. My therapist helped me understand what I was going through, could give me a diagnosis; anxiety, and explain what anxiety was. She gave me guidance and breathing techniques to lower coming panic attacks. Sometimes I could even completely avoid them all together, but in a healthy way because now I finally knew what was wrong with me. I came to understand the source of my anxiety, which apparently had been present throughout my life (one of the many fun little things you discover in therapy).
In most cases, which for most people is the case; Anxiety is an extreme case of fear of threat and death. And in my case, my unfortunate mother's disease and death triggered my anxiety to such an extent that it led into a disorder, due to the trauma of losing her. In short, I am unnaturally terrified of dying. In summary, I am terrified of my own body (slowly) killing me, due to either illness, starvation or otherwise. You name it.
As said before, I'm terrified of dying. Any threat that may apply to the possibility of dying is a trigger. These triggers can be big, and they can also be very minor. My dealing with them depends on the scale of threat…. which my irrational mind dictates. Because all these triggers that evoke a panic attack, are mostly all in my mind! In reality, it has no baseline to actual facts. Understanding the nature of this, does help me deal with it. For example; My anxiety can be said, started in my childhood.
I have vivid memories of having a fear of germs. Mysophobia, also known as vermiphobia, germaphobia, germaphobia, bacillophobia and bacteriophobia. I've never been officially diagnosed, but my memories are very telling. Fearing to touch certain items, holding my breath with certain smells, even avoiding physical contact with other children cause they looked filthy with snot, stains and dirt. I thought there was something very harmful in filth or foul air. My fear of the threat of death was very much present without me realizing. Growing older, my mysophobia grew much less as I grew more to understand that certain bacteria and germs wouldn’t and couldn’t harm me (However, public bathrooms and doorknobs are still an issue for me to this day). But I could prevent the potential harm to my being and I had the feeling of control.
The illnesses that my mother endured were all illnesses that could not be prevented by simply washing your hands however. It’s true that cancer can be evoked by certain lifestyles, but even a considered healthy person can get cancer. This knowledge and realization that I could have it as well, became my main trigger. That a disease could enter my body, slowly kill me and I could do nothing about it. And the feeling of being powerless against something like that was paralyzing.
"My mother and I shared everything. It would be only natural that I might share this too.” This is the narration that goes on in my mind. The little voice in the back of your mind telling you it’s over before it even begins. It’s a strange battle to fight, but it’s a battle nonetheless. With every blemish on my skin, with every little bump I feel under the shower, with every pain that I haven’t felt before, my mind instantly goes to “This is it. This is the end.” And it’s frustrating as hell. My body reacts to the inner voice and not to my rational outer voice. I become nauseated, I tremble, my vision and balance becomes impaired and of course there is the trouble of breathing. All because I felt a little bump. These are my triggers to my panic. (The Covid-19 pandemic has been another troublesome factor, but I will not focus on my Anxiety and Covid-19 at present. That's for another rainy day post.)
Going into therapy has opened my eyes to these connections. And have helped me to battle my fears head on. But mostly trying to understand what my anxiety really is, like how I’ve come to understand “Germ-inology”, has also helped me deal a little better.
What I think “Anxiety” really is
"Telling me to just stop feeling anxious is like sticking a fork in my hand
and telling me to stop feeling pain."
Fear in itself is a survival instinct instilled in us through evolution. When we see a bigger threat that may cause us harm. For instance; a lion, a shark, a man with a knife or an oncoming car, our body instinctively reacts to that situation. Fear heightens all our senses in order for us to flee or fight. However, fear can also paralyze , like a deer in the headlights of a coming car. I believe anxiety lives within that part of the fear scale. The paralyzing “deer in headlights” part.
Anxiety is based on the feeling of a certain threat looming over a person. For some it’s the threat of losing your house, your job, your social status and even your life. And in our minds that loss will be so completely devastating, that there is no coming back from it. So why try? At least, that’s what we think. What we believe. What we feel. And what we feel is anxiety. And because it’s such an overtaking and overly present feeling… We listen to it. And that in my opinion.. is bad! However, it’s the state of things right now.
Now I don’t say a little anxiety is bad. In those instances I just rather want to call it nervousness. The feeling of wanting to do right and not mess it up. Like giving a presentation. Hoping a date will go well. Waiting for that test result. And even if things don’t go well. Oh well, you’ve tried. You've failed. You’ll try again and be nervous again because you want to do well and not fuck up.
A person with anxiety will not only fear the absolute worst of giving a presentation. This person will feel like the course of their life depends on whether they succeed or fail. Waiting for a test result? If it isn’t a good result, their life as they know it will be over. They have already witnessed their entire demise within their minds due to the bad results. The fear of losing everything hangs on the balance of your potential to survive in this life. Every possible outcome (mostly bad) has spun a web of traps within our anxious mind. And that feeling sucksssssss.
Most of the time, these feelings aren't based on facts, only presumptions. These examples are a little different from my own anxiety example, but the overall obsessive need to survive is the same. And yes, I’m very much aware that my doom scenario type thinking is mostly ridiculous fantasy. But when your panic takes over in that moment… it’s as if you become an entirely different person. In my experience, having anxiety makes you two different people. The rational and the irrational. (Little pop-culture reference here. Think of Gollum and Smeagol having a discussion about whether or not they should kill the hobbits. Now replace that conversation with a discussion whether this is the end as they know it or not.) Ever since I got aware of my anxiety, whenever I do start having a panic attack. I’ve started having these strange conversations with myself. Telling me to calm down. Telling me it’s alright. Telling me that I’ve done the research and 1 day spoiled beef can give me food poisoning, but it won’t kill me right away. Medical science will safe me. Yet the response I get from my irrational side is: “It’s not alright. You can't be saved. Someone wrote on Facebook that one time that their 70 year old father died of spoiled beef. It CAN kill me! It will!” … It’s a ridiculous conversation. But unfortunately all based on actual personal experiences. And calming myself down this way doesn’t always help either. Telling me to just stop feeling anxious is like sticking a fork in my hand and telling me to stop feeling pain. It just isn’t that simple. Dealing with a constant present feeling of anxiety takes exercise, understanding and time. Not just a good talking to. And I’ve kept coming back to the little things that do help.
How I am dealing with it
Honestly… I’m not doing that great, but I am dealing. Even knowing what my triggers are, it doesn’t mean it can be avoided completely. But knowing my diagnoses and knowing what my triggers are, do help me deal with it in my daily life. But for me, it does not mean the problem is solved and now I am no longer afraid. Not at all. Even though the anxiety doesn't not show on my face or in my demeanor whenever you are having a conversation with me. It does not mean the panic isn’t there. It’s just that in the end, I still have to function within society in order to work and live my life. No matter how afraid I feel to do anything, I must do the best I can. And I want to. I love my work and will always want to do my job properly.
Things will undoubtedly happen outside of my control and yes, I understand that someday I will die. But I have found the most difficult aspect of having this type of anxiety is: Having to accept that I have a panic disorder. It sounds banile. But for me, as proud and stubborn as I can be, this is still very hard for me to do. For me it means having to accept that I will have moments in my life where I will feel completely miserable and afraid, without real cause. I don’t want to live like that. I have been told that it will digress the more I learn to deal with the angst. But it’s a long and absolutely tiresome road to peace of mind.
So it’s not only a question on how I’m dealing with it. It’s also a question on how I’m working on it. Cause something will not improve on its own. It takes practice, work and repetition. Since therapy I’ve tried a couple of new habits and exercises that do help sometimes. Sometimes they don’t. I still occasionally have complete breakdowns. But as long as I get back up again and I really want to get back up, then I know I’ll be fine. Doing the exercises and being mindful of my anxiety has also shorten my breakdown periods immensely. Here are some of the things I do that help.
First of all, I listen to my body more. Little signals like exhaustion or elevated breathing and heart rate are indicators that I might be about to panic. Why? Well, I don’t know yet. I can through myself into work and forget everything else. But my body and mind are still so out of sync, that I occasionally have to stop and listen to my body. Being more healthy is also important. By changing my diet and also adding more vitamins. More exercise (not much exercise, because I’m quite lazy), has helped more than I thought it would. Quitting caffeine was difficult to do. And oh how I miss coffee! But the difference in how I feel is incredible. By accident I drank a cup of regular coffee, instead of decafe, after being off caffeine for almost 6 month. Immediately it made me feel anxious and shaky! (a poor trainee barista made a mistake… Oh Starbucks). I’ve been off caffeine for 2 years now. Even though the changes can be considered minor, it were those first little steps that helped make a difference in the long run. They do help! Very VERY occasionally I do yoga, which also focuses on the body and most importantly breathing.
Breathing exercises are the best defence to a panic attack and/or getting rid of a panic attack. When I'm in the middle of a panic attack, I find a private place, do breathing exercises and then just wait it out, till I’ve calmed down. It has worked so far the best when I’m in the middle of an attack.
Then there are the more mindful things I do to help me deal. As long as I can remember I’ve always written little stories or essays, purely for my own amusement. I would write down my thoughts and note down existential life questions I had. I’ve heard the term they use now is journaling, where you even can buy special notebooks. I just keep one notebook and write down EVERYTHING. Thoughts, notes, goals, work related subjects and ideas, truly everything. Having everything in one place, keeps me focused. To someone else, my notebook would be absolute chaos. But it’s not for others to ever see. It’s for me. Writing down my thoughts on anxiety helps. It gives me a different perspective. Even writing this very article helps me to understand my situation more. It brings structure to my chaos and comfort to my irrational mind.
It’s the same with reading (or listening to literature based podcasts). Whether it is fiction or biographical, it gives me comfort that everybody struggles with certain aspects in life. Reading how people go through life, helps me reflect on my own. It motivates me to do better and be more helpful (also the latter scares me). I’m a sucker for a good story and I believe every tale shares a bit of wisdom. There are also some good podcasts on anxiety out there. But do find the good ones, cause some are anxiety inducing.
Then there is music. Listening to music is very therapeutic for me. And also almost a religious pastime. It’s a form of escapism into the corners of my mind, which I can only enter when I’m completely private and alone (A luxury I don’t much have). And as a working artist the perfect gateway for inspiration when I'm experiencing a block or anxiety. Whether it’s escaping, dancing my heart out or sitting in my chair sobbing and shaking, music helps me deal.
And then there is anything that makes me work with my hands and keeps me out of my head. Which for me is usually working with textiles and yarns (Also, my mother, next to being a great artist, was also a great seamstress. So using her sewing machine and other equipment makes me feel closer to her). The source of fear is usually just in my head. Having my focus on figuring out which pattern pieces has to be stitched together or how many loops to count while crocheting, keeps the focus away from my anxieties. In general if I have flights of fancy where I have the urge to build something. I usually give in to those urges and even make time. I’ve come to understand it to be a signal of my subconscious, telling me I need to rest my mind and be active with my body. A classic case of not thinking, but just doing something. It’s why we have hobbies I suppose.
What has helped my the most to deal, was being open about my anxiety. This step took me a while though and I’m still not good about it. I would walk around in the fear of randomly getting a panic attack around my family or friends. I felt ashamed of my anxiety disorder and din't want to settle the people I cared about with my worries and fears.
For a long time, only my partner knew what was wrong with me. But it’s also a difficult thing to hide from your partner when you have nightly terrors. He would talk to me, hold me and help me sleep. In many ways, I’m very grateful for having my partner in my life, although it was not easy in the least for him either. Telling my father and grandmother about the disorder was also eye opening on how much it helped. I could let go of that shame. I am also very lucky to have a great relationship with my father, with whom I can talk openly about my anxieties. Most importantly, we can have fun about it.
Telling friends and even colleagues is another hurdle at the start. Sure, not everyone will understand what a panic disorder is. Nor do I necessarily look like a person constantly in a panic when you meet me. But it has helped me more to be honest about it. That's away that edge. Just imagine having a panic attack and trying to explain what's happening in hindsight. In those situations, having someone be like “Oh, right. She told me she is has a panic disorder. And she told me to just talk with her.” is better for both parties involved. Pleasantly talking and joking around helps me to calm down. I might still be stressed or on edge after calming down, but I’ll be able to get through the day.
What works for me will not work for you
I have openly shared my experiences with my anxiety... So far. And if you are having troubles with your anxiety, there might be a few things you’d recognize and some things you are glad to have not. And that’s good. You and I are not the same. Our issues may be sourced from the same disorder, but the causes may vary greatly. Whether it be social anxiety or phobia related anxiety. It’s still annoying as hell and hard to live with. Even so, we have to keep going and make the best of it.
My anxiety will not go away quickly. It’s much less than it used to be and I will continue working on it. I hope that one day I might be “cured” of my anxiety (Notice the “” when I say cured). But I understand my anxiety has been within my psyche for almost my entire life. But it feels to me like something I’ve learned. A habit. And habits can be broken. But not easily. I may be simplifying. But it helps me going forward and that’s what counts. It's the goal I'm striving for. And if it helps me, then screw what anybody else says or thinks. It’s what works for me. Maybe it will also work for you?
Everyone I talk to about my anxiety tells me I am a strong person, but naturally they only get to see me on my good days. Although I try to be an open and honest person, I’m naturally a very private and drawn-back person. A sociable introvert if you will. I don’t feel lonely as often as other people would be. In fact, I raffle in solitude. Also, I don’t like to show my weaknesses. Being an only child, I’ve always felt that I had to fix my own problems. Stand on my own two feet. And if I believe myself to be strong like people say. Well, I believe that strength comes from my stubbornness and absolutely knowing what I DON’T want in my life. And what I don’t want right now is to live in fear.
However, If I’ve learned anything these past few years, is that dealing with my anxiety is difficult to do on your own. Asking for help still goes against my entire being, but it’s one of the many learning curves to make. Because not only did I need therapy. I needed people to understand what was happening.
So if I have to give you any advice. From me to you. Then it would be to be open and communicate. If you think about it, everybody has something to be anxious about. In the end everybody you meet is just trying to survive. Some are just more worried about surviving then others. And that’s us. Don’t try to hide it. Especially from your loved ones. But don’t accept the disorder either. It’s there. It’s present. For now. And you are dealing with it, until it is gone.
By being open and communicating with my partner, we’ve strengthened our relationship. Even with the ups and downs. Cause there will always be ups and downs, for him as well. We go through it together. So be honest about your fears. It is not a weakness to be open and truthful. Your survival doesn’t depend on your fearlessness. We are all anxious about something. You are absolutely not alone. If anything, you got me. I understand. And if I don’t, I will try to.
It’s a constant struggle, I know. But when has life not been? Keep going. And you’ll find you are never quite alone.
Hi, My name is Suze Gil and I write to help women in the creative industry through reading, share my love for art and tell stories.